PRESIDENT Barack Obama declared himself to be “deeply humbled” as he and his family visited the tiny cell in Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.
As the beloved South African leader, now 94 years old, lies critically ill in hospital, the US president said his visit to the prison cell made him realise what sacrifices the ANC leader had made.
He said he knew the prison visit would be an experience that would stay forever with his young daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Under sunshine and clear, blue skies, Mr Obama, first lady Michelle and Malia and Sasha took in the expansive view of the quarry, a huge crater with views of the rusty guard tower from where Mr Mandela was watched.
He was guided on his tour by 83-year-old South African politician Ahmed Kathrada, who was held at the prison for nearly two decades and guided Mr Obama on his 2006 visit to the prison as a US senator.
Mr Obama commented on the “hard labour” Mr Mandela endured and asked Mr Kathrada to remind his daughters how long Mr Mandela was in prison. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years – 18 of them in the cramped room at Robben Island
In a guest book in the prison courtyard the president wrote: “On behalf of our family, we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield.
“The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit,”
The trip to Robben Island was the emotional high point of the visit – although the president had seen it before, it was the first time he had brought his family along with him.
Later that day, in an address to students at the University of Cape Town, Mr Obama said he hoped his daughters would be inspired by the courage of those who fought for freedom in South Africa.
“There was something different about bringing my children. Malia’s now 15, Sasha is 12, and seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience that they would never forget.
“I knew they now appreciated a little bit more that Madiba and others had made for freedom,” Mr Obama added, referring to Mr Mandela by his clan name.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
His address to the students in Cape Town came nearly 50 years after Robert F Kennedy delivered his famous “Ripple of Hope” speech at the same university, an address that aides said helped inspire the president’s remarks.
Kennedy’s speech, delivered soon after Mandela was sentenced to prison, called on young people to launch a fight against injustice, creating ripples of hope that would “build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”.
Laying out his own vision for development on the continent where his father was born, Mr Obama said the US seeks “a partnership that empowers Africans to access greater opportunity in their own lives”. He dismissed the notion that the US sought to meddle in Africa’s affairs, saying his country would benefit from the continent’s ability to manage its own affairs – economically, politically and militarily.
“Ultimately I believe Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests,” he said.
“We trust your judgment, the judgment of ordinary people. We believe that when you control your destiny – if you got a handle on your governments – then governments will promote freedom and opportunity, because that will serve you.”
US to invest $7bn of $300bn required to ‘Power Africa’
The White House says Mr Obama’s electricity initiative, dubbed “Power Africa,” symbolises the type of cross-continent ventures the president seeks. Backed by $7 billion (£4.6bn) in US investment, the power programme will focus on expanding access to electricity in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania.
Private companies, including General Electric and Symbion Power, will make an additional $9bn (£5.9bn) in commitments. However, those contributions fall well short of the $300bn (£197bn) the International Energy Agency says would be required to achieve universal electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.
The funds are aimed at expanding power grids and developing geothermal, hydro, wind and solar power.